The Midwestern Innocence Project: Sixteen years in prison was the ¿reward¿ Ellen Reasonover received for coming forward as a witness in a 1983 murder near St. Louis. It took another five years after Reasonover¿s release for her to win compensation for her wrongful conviction of murder.
It also took nearly five years in attorney Cheryl Pilate¿s career to help free the woman Pilate steadfastly believed to be innocent from the first day she became involved in the case. Pilate is a member of the Midwestern Innocence Project¿s Board of Directors.
The murder of 19-year-old James Buckley occurred at a small gas station in Dellwood, Missouri. In the midst of doing laundry at a laundromat that evening, Reasonover made a quick trip to the station to get change. She saw three men at the station, but no one answered her repeated knocks at the cashier¿s window. Reasonover later learned from media reports that the station attendant had been murdered. She then contacted police to tell them about the potential suspects she had seen. Despite corroboration of her story by two other witnesses, Reasonover became the focus of the murder investigation.
Despite a complete lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence, Reasonover and her ex-boyfriend, Stanley White, were jailed and briefly placed in adjacent cells. According to court testimony and police records, authorities secretly taped conversations between the two, hoping to get both suspects to talk about the case. They did, but the conversations showed ignorance about the details of the case, and genuine anger and bewilderment about their arrests. It was clear from the tape that neither Reasonover nor White had any involvement in the crime.
Reasonover was then moved to another jail, and placed in a cell with two other female prisoners. One of the inmates, Rose Jolliff, told authorities Reasonover implicated herself in the crime, and the second inmate, Marquita Butler, was pressured to corroborate the story. Police did not record the conversation, and Reasonover denied confessing to Jolliff. Despite enticements from police, Butler later supported Reasonover¿s story. Authorities decided to believe Jolliff and continued to focus on Reasonover as the prime suspect. She was released from jail and received a call from Jolliff, who was working with police. The conversation was secretly recorded, but Reasonover maintained her innocence. During the ensuing murder trial, Jolliff falsely denied under oath that she was promised a more lenient sentence in exchange for testifying against Reasonover, after her lawyer had received a prosecutor¿s assurance of such a deal. Later, neither police nor prosecutors mentioned either of the secretly recorded tapes to Reasonover¿s defense attorneys. The tapes remained hidden for years.
A month after the murder, Reasonover was rearrested on charges of stealing from a gas station ¿ a second case brought by the same local prosecutor. An undercover officer and a cell mate later gave statements that Reasonover never implicated herself in either crime. But a third woman ¿ a convicted thief and heroin addict ¿ claimed she heard Reasonover confess. The woman, Mary Ellen Lyner, later admitted on the witness stand that she received favorable treatment in her own cases for testifying against Reasonover ¿ but then lied about her history of testifying in return for leniency.
In July 1983, Reasonover was convicted of the gas station theft, based largely on Lyner¿s false testimony. Reasonover received a seven-year sentence. Four months later, with Lyner and Jolliff serving as the state¿s witnesses, Reasonover was tried and convicted in the murder case. The jury vote was 11¿1 for the death penalty. The lack of a unanimous vote spared Reasonover¿s life. Years passed, and an apparent open-and-shut case came to life again when Reasonover contacted Centurion Ministries
in New Jersey, asking Jim McCloskey to review her case. Centurion leaders agreed the case had merit, and in 1994 they retained a Kansas City law firm, now called Wyrsch Hobbs & Mirakian. The firm¿s principal, James Wyrsch, turned the case over to Pilate, who was later joined by Charles Rogers. After digging into the case files, all three lawyers became convinced not only that Reasonover was innocent, but that police and prosecutors intentionally hid evidence of innocence from defense lawyers while relying solely on testimony of jailhouse snitches.
Eventually, the secret tapes and memos were found, proving the prosecutor in Reasonover¿s case had promised leniency to one of the snitches in return for testimony against Reasonover. Pilate and her colleagues asserted in their pleadings that the prosecutor knowingly allowed false testimony at trial, hid powerful exculpatory evidence, misled the jury in his closing argument and made misrepresentations to the court in a post-trial hearing. Eventually, United States District Court Judge Jean Hamilton called for a full evidentiary hearing. One by one, the jailhouse informants, police investigators and the prosecutor in Reasonover¿s case were discredited. In August 1999, Judge Hamilton ruled in favor of Reasonover and ordered her release ¿ 16 years after her ordeal began.
In 2004, with Pilate again at her side, Reasonover received a $7.5 million settlement to be paid by the insurance company for Dellwood, Missouri. As part of the settlement, the town of Dellwood and its current police chief, who then was the lead investigator in the case, did not admit any wrongdoing. ¿Ellen is one of the luckier exonerees, if you can believe it,¿ said Pilate. ¿She has received monetary compensation for the years taken from her by the system. But many exonerees are simply released back into society without so much as an apology.¿